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Authors: Gil Adamson

Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000

The Outlander (10 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
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A lone wolf awaited her when she returned to the carcass, this gasping
human, gaunt latecomer to the feast, weapon in hand. She spoke to the wolf in
affectionate tones, but her stance and the hollow glitter of her eyes told the animal
otherwise. Dun fur rose up on its shoulder as the horror of her scent reached it. The
widow was a monster of nature, out of place, pale and stinking of humankind. The wolf
fell back a few paces for comfort, then lifted its snout and scented
again the wretched thing before it. The widow approached the carcass, every fibre
in her body aligned by need. The wolf did not wait to see her cut into the deer's
haunch but turned and loped away.

through bushes like immaterial
sprites and shrilled to one another. The widow closed her eyes. Before her stood the
little fire she had built and maintained for hours. With food in her belly, she drew
again on her pipe and puffed a fragrant white smoke, raising a signal into the air that
wandered among the hackled pines. The fire was her only concern. That, and going in
search of dry wood and leaves, stoking the fire when it lagged, squatting like a golem
by its warm perimeter and meditating on the flames. Fat hissed uncut from the deer meat
and dropped onto the coals in pops of flame. When the wind changed, the widow would
shift the spindly tent of green branches she had fashioned to support the meat. A greasy
smoke billowed over her and she was all but lost in the clouds of it.

She had eaten some of the dark, purplish flesh raw, about a golf
ball's worth. It was pliant and dense and rich, and it smelled vulgar. After the
inevitable vomiting, she had turned immediately back to eating. She felt as if she were
working against a death that was mere hours away. All morning, her affronted belly
seethed. She had expected this. But more strangely, transient pains came and went in her
limbs, an oppressive ache bore down through her left shoulder as if some vulture stood
there, grinding. The tendons of her jaw tautened, and pain spread out and upward across
her skull before it subsided. Each distress came and passed, and none lasted more than a
few minutes. The body fortifying itself,
surveying the empty
territories. The widow just sat and endured these events, gaunt and clinging to her
pipe, with her knees up around her chin.

This, she thought ruefully,
is the bride, the mother in her
apron, or sitting upright at the dinner table, full of bright conversation. These hands
had held a hoe that worked a hobby garden, held a rifle and appalled her husband with
her aim; these hands had held the bodies of pheasants up so she could look closely at
them, their heads dangling like pendants, their wrinkled eyes half-closed. She shifted
on her haunches and covered her grimy face. Go away, go away. Remembrance: a fly that
won't leave but bites and bites in the same spot. She poked around in her
saddlebags for the matches and busied herself with lighting another ration of

She attempted to recline with her feet out before her, as she had done
only days ago in a green and fairyish wood. At that time, her horse had been near her in
the dark and there was no other threat than self-told ghost stories. But now her belly
was so shrunken and taut she could not comfortably recline, and so she was obliged to
squat again.

Later, she rose feebly and went hunting firewood. There, among a clutch of
lush underbrush, grew something she suddenly and with joy recognized as edible.
Fiddleheads. Little curled greens that hid among the parent ferns and that, she knew,
tasted buttery when charred along their frilly edges. The widow bent, trembling among
the low vegetation, and picked every one she could see, clutching them to her like
jewels and snatching back the dropped ones — until she straightened and looked
about her at the endless sea of them. Why had she not noticed them before? Was it that
good luck tends to bring more of itself, or had she finally found the
energy to seek her own survival? The vast shadow of some bird floated by overhead,
but when she looked for it, she saw only a ragged seam in the evergreens and, beyond
that, a flat whiteness. The widow stood gazing upward, the pipe stem clenched between
her molars.

Her father had smoked a tiny ebony pipe when she was a child. Black and
polished and prone to extinguishing because of its narrowness. It was, she felt now, a
slightly pretentious object. But he had had many affectations, her father. He would let
her pack the bowl for him, using the wide end of a golf tee to tamp down the wadge of
tobacco, and using its sharp point to dig out the resin and ash. He would glance about
to see whether any women were likely to see him and then put his feet up on the antique
fire screen, cross his legs at the ankles, and put on a pensive face.

He would explain to his daughter the properties of fire, the vile,
vindictive nature of lightning, and the new theories of controlled electrical

“There is an exhibition in London,” he had once told her,
“where a thousand glass bulbs are illuminated together and the nighttime becomes
as bright as day.” People thought of electricity as a liquid, like water,
he'd said. It might be prone to leaking. Women's hair would crackle with the
excess discharge of energy, and horses could not be compelled to stand waiting on
lighted avenues but ran away still harnessed to their empty carriages, eyes rolling with

“Still,” he had said, “when bustles replaced hoops, they
claimed that this panicked horses too. Traffic accidents are an impediment to commerce,
so will ladies
dress conventionally?”

Idiocy amused her father, and he saw idiocy everywhere. He was a man who
affected an interest in science, and perhaps it was of some importance to him, but his
gabbing was mainly intended to annoy the softheads around him, whom he considered to be
besotted by religion. Because he was a former Anglican minister, his grasp of scripture
far exceeded that of anyone who might want to take him on, even her churchy grandmother,
who retired each night to read a page or two of the Bible before sleep — the
gospels as soporific; Job's endless trials a stiff sleeping draught, his story
left unresolved. Her father, on the other hand, would tap his own standard Bible where
it still sat by his bed, never dusty but never moving its position on the table, and
say, “Now, that's a grand tale.” He would not follow his brothers or
mother to church. He had never visited his wife's grave in the churchyard, as the
rest of the family did once a month, to gaze down on the rose marble tablet. She
remembered her grandmother bending to flick debris from its face. A small photograph had
been embedded there at great cost, framed in tin. It was now completely faded away. This
was the comedy of it. Mother, wife, daughter-in-law — now a signified blank.

She would stand at her mother's grave with the other grim-faced
attendants, trying to blot out the memory of her father, who, in the drunken month after
the funeral, one night summed up in frigid detail the most likely condition of his late
wife's beautiful body. Not resting on the bosom of Christ. Oh, no. Not sleeping.
But this other horrible process. One's passage through life, he'd said, was
as involuntary as peristalsis, and life itself enacted a frightful digestion. For her
father, the problem lay in life's enclosure; once started, it
must stop. And no comfort at either end. No heaven, no saviour. Just cessation and

“Why do you pretend there is more?” he'd asked his
mother. She shook her head and announced that she pitied her own son, for pain was
making him morbid.

“Oh, I see,” he said, “we mustn't be morbid about
death? How comforting it must be to have a bedtime story to tell yourself, Mother, how
consoling to stand like idiots around a stone.”

His faith, when it flew, had left nothing in its place, no opposite
protesting view, no view at all.

Her grandmother whispered to her at bedtime, “Despair is a sin,
Mary, and a minister in despair is the most pitiable creature on earth.” The soft
hands stroking her cheeks, charm bracelets jingling. “You must always have hope
for your father, hope for his return,” as if he, too, had passed over to some
other place. She remembered her father years later, after the worst was over, sitting in
the garden at night, visible only by the glow of his little pipe, the tiny caldera with
its rouged lip. He was invisible in the dark with his mourning clothes and black hair.
After his wife's death he never wore anything but black again.

The widow sat in her well of uninvited memory. One looks back in awe.
Alone in a dim clearing with nothing but the flash of sparrows about her. No sound but
wind. A dry white sky was stretched over her and seemed barely to move. It was cloud but
not cloud — simply the lighted void.
Is not God in the heights? And behold the
stars, they, too, look up in wonder.
These things came to her, these little
bits of Sunday school prattle.

She rose with a pain in her gut and put away her tobacco pouch, wrapped
the pipe in cloth and tucked it away too. She put the saddlebags and purse under the
skirt of an evergreen tree and took the saddle and blanket from where they hung from a
branch, stirrups dangling loose, and also laid these on the carpet of pine needles. Then
she took her clothes off and went on pale and unsteady legs, bare-assed, into the trees,
where she sat across a fallen rampike and expelled a painful, intermittent slurry from
her body.

That evening she went sighing into the tent of branches and curled up with
her belongings, the fur coat over her like a blanket. A lonely summer night, where snow
fell in the alpine dark and lay dusty upon the leaves and grass. The meat frosted over
near the dead fire; the surrounding ground was wet, ringed with snow. But the widow
slept with her cheek on the stolen little silk purse, a sucked-on strand of hair in her
open mouth.

This is how William Moreland found her. He had tracked what he recognized
as the smoke from a pipe, expecting to find several men. He had approached cautiously,
from upwind, in case there were dogs. He found nothing but a girl.

Moreland stood over the dreaming stranger for a long time, hands on his
hips and a pistol at his waist.


, he was across the clearing, sitting on
his haunches.

“You aren't with the Forest Service, are you?” he

The widow stared at him, half sitting up. He could not actually be there,
that was obvious, and so she tried to avert her eyes, wash the illusion away. But he
would not vanish. She coughed and ran a palm over her sleepy face. He was still there.
And so she sat up and attempted to fathom the presence of this human, here in the
wilderness. An agonizing mix of panic and gratitude filled her. Safe or not safe? She
could not tell.

He was smallish, tidy, with a huge old-fashioned moustache, shirt sleeves
rolled to his elbows even in the cold, and suspenders to keep his pants up. His hair had
the same healthy oil you saw on Indian women, and it shone in places. A deep pink
suffused his cheeks — like a child who has been running.

“You all by yourself?” he said. He had affected the tone of
one speaking to an idiot. She did not move or speak. He approached her and she scrabbled
away from him, but he kept coming. It wasn't until he touched her that a true clap
of terror ran through her. This was real, it was happening, and she could not know where
it would lead. He tried to raise her, but
she was so weak her knees
would not support her. The widow sank down heavily, her head spinning. Her hand was
shaking in his. The man was looking up the mountain as if judging the grade. Then he
assessed her belongings, which lay strewn all around her, a rude human debris. He seized
her arm.

“Ally-oop!” he bellowed and threw her screaming over his

, she lay alone, febrile and tossing in
his tent, while he sat outside by a fire and guarded her. At least that's what he
told her, patting his pistol — that he would guard her against
“intruders.” Her head nodded and she panted shallowly with fatigue, but
looking about the dark forest she wondered what intruders . . . what people? His camp
was sparse, like the camp of a man on a short hunting trip, but everything was worn and
rotting, many years old. A pair of snowshoes hung from one tree; from another, a shaving
mirror. On a fallen log lay a hat so formless and marbled from sweat and rain that it
might have been a large riverstone. He told her his name was William Moreland and that
he had been living in the mountains for nine years. He didn't explain why.

He had fed her and washed her face with snow that he melted in a pot. The
hot water and fusty washcloth made her skin tingle. He was extraordinarily gentle with
her. She closed her eyes and tried not to weep. He explained that he'd thrown away
her fiddleheads, for they were poison in great quantities; and the deer meat she'd
been eating might be all right, but on the other hand it might kill her, depending on
the animal and how sick it was. How else but from a sick animal could this skinny girl
have got meat? He didn't know about the wolves.

“Did ya eat any raw?” he said loudly into her ragged, vacant
face. But she could only watch his mouth moving. Sickness, fear, shock. She was on the
edge of consciousness, at the horizon of it, a penumbra where the light sputters.

On the second night she woke to find him there in the tent with her, lying
as formal as a mummy, his hands across his belly and his eyes open. All the blankets
were laid over her. When she shifted to see his face more closely, he shot up and
scrambled from the tent as if swarmed by bees. The widow lay listening to the wind in
the trees and her benefactor's feet pacing the cold ground. They were at a high
altitude, the air thin, few birds, the gurgle of mountain streams encased in ice. It was
summer, but his camp was dusted with snow in the morning. It melted with the sun, but
slowly built up in the shadows, dry frozen waves that crumbled like meringue under his
boots. She spent most of her time inside the tent, staring out at him. She was awake
now, and keenly aware of her position. Her grandmother would have thrilled to such a
vivid disaster, like something from an oriental tale. She would have called it
. And yet, the old woman would probably have condoned John's
marital brusqueness, the way he impelled her urgently to the bed and drove himself into
her with a force she could barely believe. His first furious go at her the worst, for it
had been long-awaited, and she was utterly ignorant and unprepared for blood. Now she
watched William Moreland with a worried eye as he stirred a pot of coffee. Smaller than
John. He moved more quietly, though, his sleeves rolled up, immune to cold.

BOOK: The Outlander
10.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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